Restaurant association highlights stresses faced without allowance of indoor dining

Gabrielle Saulsbery//August 3, 2020

Restaurant association highlights stresses faced without allowance of indoor dining

Gabrielle Saulsbery//August 3, 2020

Members of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association hosted a virtual press conference Aug. 3 once again highlighting the stresses hospitality businesses will face without the allowance of indoor dining.

“Current estimates suggest 30 percent of restaurants that make up the culture and personality of our state will close,” said NJRHA President Marilou Halvorsen. “Hit even harder, are our state’s largest wedding venues. Their complete closure has led to a ripple effect in the industry, where professionals like photographers, videographers, florists, and musicians, to name a few, are all out of work,” she added.

Halvorsen was joined by restaurateurs Marilyn Schlossbach of Langosta Lounge, Jeanne Cretella of Landmark Hospitality, and Bob Wagner of Ott’s Tavern and Braddock’s; as well as Tom Diadone of The Estate at Florentine Gardens.

In late June, Gov. Phil Murphy reversed a plan to open indoor dining a few days before it was set to begin, surprising and disappointing restaurant owners and employees hopeful to get a bigger slice of this summer’s business.

Nearly five months after COVID-19 closures began, of the 85 percent of restaurant employees that were laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, only 23 percent are back to work, Halvorsen said. According to Local 54, if indoor dining resumed at a level of 25 percent, it would mean over 3,000 employees would return to work in Atlantic City alone.

Halvorsen said she approached the governor’s office for some face time with Murphy in early June and was just told last week that his schedule wouldn’t allow for a meeting.

The current rate of transmission of COVID-19 is 1.48, near its highest in months. In states with climbing COVID-19 numbers, Murphy has brought up indoor dining as a culprit. Halvorsen said she disagrees.

Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, at Firehouse Subs in Lawrenceville.
Halvorsen, president and CEO, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.  – AARON HOUSTON

“I look at some of my neighboring states, and it’s really, you can’t say that. I keep going back to Connecticut, but other things are opened. You can’t keep hanging your hat on restaurants. Our RT is going up slightly here and we don’t have indoor dining, so it’s showing you that other activities are causing that,” she said. “I live over by the beach area. There’s a lot of people here, and again, there’s nowhere for them to go. So we have to allow them to go to places that are safe and sanitary. But indoor dining is not creating [the increased rate in transmission.]..it’s the close contact, it’s other things that are not indoor dining.”

Halvorsen noted that restaurants “have the ability to control where people sit, what they touch, and how they mingle unlike indoor house parties or other unauthorized gatherings which seem to be on the rise as people hunger to socialize and celebrate,” and said that she is confident that restaurants won’t become the “super spreaders of this virus.”

Murphy noted in his Monday briefing that he didn’t watch the NJRHA’s press conference and that he had “extreme sympathy” for the state’s restaurants.

“The fact is, you can’t eat or drink and have your mask on and this isn’t the case on a bus or train or some other indoor activity,” he said, and noted, “we all can see table service with drinks brought to the table and more clear that we can see congregating around a bar.”

The NJRHA will soon begin a 30-day campaign called #IServeJersey, which will include short videos of restaurateurs speaking on the challenges they experienced during the shutdown; and a series of meetings with elected officials around the state to share with them the struggles of the industry and their employees.